Basketball is Life in Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’

Denzel Washington plays a father in search of a second chance in Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’

“Since you was born, I’ve been pushin’ tryin’ to make you the best ballplayer that you could possibly be. Tryin’ to make you the ballplayer I never was. I finally came to the realization that I was pushing you further and further away from me.” ~ ‘He Got Game’

I sometimes wonder if Spike Lee knew that He Got Game (1998), a film about the power of basketball, would resonate with a white kid who grew up in the Connecticut suburbs. Such is the skill of an artist like Lee, to take one specific story about an African American father and son in Coney Island and make it relatable to all fathers and sons who come together over sports.

Lee’s films have always been unmistakably his. An auteur in every sense of the word, his films feature the same stylistic devices, regardless of story, and are unapologetic expressions of African American culture in all its historical complexity.

Every now and then, Lee throws us a curveball and gives us something like 25th Hour (2002), which features an Irish American protagonist and a nearly all-white cast, but for the most part, he remains cinema’s most important and influential director of the African American experience.

Lee has never shied away from telling it like it is. When Norman Jewison considered directing a biopic about Malcolm X, Lee famously stepped in and said, “I got this.” When Clint Eastwood released two films about World War II in 2006, Lee called him out for ignoring people of color’s contributions to the deadliest conflict in human history.

But Lee isn’t just a complainer. His Malcolm X (1992) biopic is one of the best films of the 1990s, and a radical work of art only he could have pulled off. After Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Lee made Miracle at St. Anna (2008), which tells the story of four black soldiers.

Like all interesting directors, not every film Lee makes works, but even the messy ones are worth seeing because they are either ambitious narrative experiments or deeply personal expressions. What interests me most about directors are the films that fall somewhere in between the flat-out masterpieces and the failed misfires. He Got Game is perhaps the perfect example of this, as it’s rarely considered among Lee’s greatest films like Do the Right Thing (1989), but it has enough going for it to not be deemed a dud like She Hate Me (2004).

Of all Lee’s films, He Got Game is the one that means the most to me. Coming from a basketball family, as well as a family where bonds between fathers and sons are often tested, I’m always moved by Lee’s celebration of basketball as a means to mend fractured relationships. Lee understands that the court has always been the classroom. It’s a place where, in between competitive games, fathers impart tough life lessons to their sons, but sons don’t listen because they know their fathers haven’t practiced what they’re preaching.

The relationship between Jake (Denzel Washington) and Jesus (Ray Allen) is one of the best father-son dynamics ever depicted on film, largely thanks to Washington’s layered performance as a failed felon fighting for a second chance. Incarnated in Attica Correctional Facility for accidentally killing his wife in a fit of rage six years ago, Jake is allowed one week of supervised release by the governor to convince his son Jesus, the best high school basketball player in the country, to attend Big State University, the governor’s alma matter. If Jesus chooses Big State University, Jake will be granted early release from prison. This premise sets in motion a powerful family drama about anger, regret and forgiveness.

The moments that stand out find Lee forgoing story for style. His films have always been this way. Think of the scene below from Do the Right Thing, where Lee breaks the fourth wall to showcase the racist stereotypes each of us subconsciously carry.

Or what about the powerful montage in 25th Hour, where an angry Monty (Edward Norton) lashes out on his last night of freedom before having to serve a long prison sentence? In Lee’s first film after 9/11, the line blurs between character and filmmaker, and it’s hard not to take this scene as Lee’s own commentary on the state of the world.

And who can forget the shocking final scene of BlacKkKlansman (2018), which brings us to the present day with Donald Trump’s presidency to make the comparison between the KKK in the 1970s and Trump’s promotion of white supremacy today.

He Got Game features similar moments, and perhaps there’s no better place to start than the opening. We immediately know that we’re entering a Spike Lee joint as Aaron Copland’s Americana score plays over images of bodies shooting hoops. Black and white, young and old, man and woman, rural and urban, Lee’s point is clear: For many, basketball is life.

For Jake and Jesus, basketball is central to their relationship. Before incarceration, we learn in a flashback scene that Jake was too tough on Jesus. During one practice, Jesus is so frustrated that he throws the ball over the fence and storms off the court. We’ve all been there, and it’s heartbreaking to watch this as an adult, knowing how such a seemingly small moment can cause a rift. Jake’s pride renders him unable to realize his mistake, and when he follows Jesus back into the house, he escalates the situation even further, culminating in a harrowing scene of physical violence that leads to his wife’s accidental death.

Years later, the same game that caused a strain in their relationship now has the power to bring them back together. After a week of trying to heal the pain he caused Jesus, Jake finally gets a chance to lay it all on the line with a game of one-on-one. If he wins, Jesus will choose Big State University. If he loses, he will disappear from Jesus’ life all together.

The match between them is about so much more than Big State University. With one game, Jesus learns to let go of the anger he’s been harboring and forgive his father, and Jake leans to let go of the need to control his son. Jake loses the one-on-one game, but Jesus decides to attend Big State University anyway, a choice that can be viewed as an expression of love for his father.

Because this is a Lee film, there isn’t a tidy bow. The system of mass incarceration finds a way to keep Jake locked up, despite giving the governor what he wanted.

In the film’s climax, Lee makes an extraordinarily bold choice. Jake, back in Attica, is playing ball by himself in the prison yard, and Lee cross-cuts this with Jesus playing ball by himself on the Big State University court. In a moment of anger, Jake throws the ball over the prison yard fence, a callback to the earlier scene with Jesus. The ball lands in Jesus’ court and he picks it up and starts playing. There’s a quiet recognition on his face, as if he knows this is his father’s ball.

By throwing Jesus the ball, Jake gives his son a life he’ll never be able to have as an incarcerated man. By picking up the ball, Jesus recognizes that it’s now his responsibility to make a better life for himself than his father could. There’s nothing left for Jake to do but stand back and let his son shine.

It’s a beautiful, bittersweet gesture, and one that continues to resonate all these years later.

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